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Books Blog: We must help Pope Francis realise his vision of a true ‘Church of the poor’

Pope Francis, as cardinal of Buenos Aires, washes and kisses the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users (CNS)

When Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected Pope, he took the name “Francis” after the Little Poor Man of Assisi, prompted by a fellow cardinal who asked him to “remember the poor.” When he was running his diocese in Buenos Aires he would send his priests out to the “peripheries”, the slums, to meet the poor where they lived and to bring Christ to them. Addressing young people at the World Youth Day in Brazil in 2013, he mentioned the time when St Francis embraced a leper; the leper became the “mediator of light” for the saint, “because in every suffering brother and sister that we embrace, we embrace the suffering Body of Christ”.

I was reminded of this core feature of the Pope’s vision for his papacy when in conversation with Mgr Hilary Franco, the biographer of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, whose book I blogged about recently. He reminded me that as long ago as the Second Vatican Council, Sheen had made a speech to the assembled bishops on the need for a “Church of the poor”. Asked by an interviewer what issue had stood out during the third session of the Council, Sheen had replied, “The one constant note that rang out is that the Church needs to recognise its special obligation to the poor. This affects the priesthood. Priests will no longer be like gasoline station attendants caring only for the regular clients who come in weekly for refuelling. They will also be explorers, digging for the Holy Spirit in the souls of all and especially the poor.” This gasoline station image could have come straight from Pope Francis.

Mgr Franco told me that when Bishop Sheen at last had a diocese of his own, in Rochester, New York, “it was natural he would try to give to poor families what was not used by the Church for worship. He used to tell me that St Ambrose sold the golden vessels of the Church to feed the poor of his diocese.” Such an outlook was not popular among conservatives in the diocese. Mgr Franco commented that Sheen “was ahead of his time. The Church was not ready to listen. We needed to wait – for Francis, our Pope!”

Mgr Franco wrote in his book that at Rochester, Sheen had “conceived a plan to rent small storefront buildings near supermarkets and transform them into small chapels, to serve those who were not members of parishes, to minister and share the word of Christ with the poor.” Sheen had pointed out, “Where do you find the common people every day? They’re at the supermarket and there is no better way to make them aware of the Church than by being where they are.” It seems that his diocesan staff did not like this initiative and foiled the plan by claiming they couldn’t find suitable premises. There are some in the Church today, wedded to the idea of a static institution, who are similarly reluctant to help Pope Francis realise his vision of a Church that is welcoming and close to the poor, a Church that, in his own words, sees itself as a field hospital, caring for the wounded.

Of course, poverty can be spiritual as well as material. The former, as Mother Teresa used to comment when she visited western countries, is often worse than the latter. One bishop who has tried to combat the spiritual blight in his own country is Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, who succeeded Cardinal Godfried Danneels as primate of Belgium in 2010. A friend has sent on to me an article from First Things describing the changes in Belgium since Leonard took over: priestly vocations have risen, traditional Catholic practices, such as Eucharistic processions for Corpus Christi, have been revived, the Latin Mass is celebrated regularly and Leonard has established a new Community of the Holy Apostles, dedicated to the new evangelisation. So what is the secret of a good bishop? According to Mgr Franco, it is “learning from the life of a saintly bishop, like Charles Borromeo of Milan whose feast day we celebrated recently – and from the life of Fulton J Sheen.”

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